Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"You make a pretty convincing Batman."
"You think so?"
"You got mad game. Did he train you?"
"Bruce Wayne. What's your name?"
"Bruce Wayne is dead! BRUCE WAYNE IS DEAD! BRUCE...WAYNE... IS..."
"Dead. That's what you said. How?"
Sequels. Whether it be film or comics, it's very rare that a sequel matches or even surpasses the original. You might actually wonder why they bother, but I'm not going to pop open that particular can of shark repellent... I mean worms...
BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, from way back in 1986, I hope we can all agree, is a classic of the modern superhero sub-genre. Along with Miller's DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN also from 1986, (soon to be completely bastardised no doubt for the third season of Marvel's Netflix Daredevil... sigh...), and that other book with the blue person with the funny tattooed forehead in, from yes you guessed it, 1986 (wasn't that a rather pivotal year in superhero comics?), who will be popping up again in DOOMSDAY CLOCK, they helped shatter the paradigm of what people expected from superhero comics. And thus instantly redefined what people wanted. Shame we've had so relatively little of that level of quality since in this niche comics sub-genre.
Its loose sequel, BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, from 2001, I would argue, falls into the mis-understood classic category. People wanted more of the same, and Frank dared to give them something different. Thus many people didn't get it initially, like myself I will very freely admit, but then upon a second read I loved it, because it had something very distinct of its own to say.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Threequel that wasn't, when we had HOLY TERROR, originally intended to be Holy Terror, Batman! Frank had something to get off his chest post-9/11, it was just that DC wasn't comfortable with it being a Dark Knight Bat-book, so Batman became The Fixer, taking out Al Qaeda wholesale in New York City. I found it a bit one-dimensional, frankly, veering dangerously towards crypto-fascism and possibly even a teeny-weeny bit racist (just a personal opinion...) and I think the safest thing I can say about it... is that probably absolutely no one regards it as a classic... Given Frank's well-documented wider health struggles over recent years, I genuinely wonder how he himself regards it now.
So, rolling forward to 2017... What has Frank got to say this time? Well... interestingly he was paired up with Brian Azzarello for the storytelling. I have absolutely no idea who has done exactly what but I'm guessing Frank came up with the plot outline and Brian helped whip the script into shape. Probably like Ben Hur riding a chariot. Before we go any further on that score, I will say Andy Kubert on pencils, Klaus Janson on inks and indeed Brad Anderson on colours are all superb, hitting the heights you want on a book as much anticipated as this. Right, back to the writing...
I read this initially as it was coming out in issues and my thoughts at the time were it got off to an exceptionally strong start in the first couple of issues, neatly reprising certain conceits from BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS like the talk show hosts providing their own one-eyed politicised commentaries, plus updating neat little devices like the television-framed footage to mobile hand-held devices so indicative of our modern social-media sharing society. It then seemed to sag somewhat in the middle, but that was in part definitely due to the delays in release, before seeming to finish strongly enough. It definitely benefitted hugely from being re-read in one go.
In terms of the story, Superman and Wonder Woman now have two children, the teenage Lara and the infant Jonathan, neatly paying a sweet nomenclaturical tribute to both Clark's Kryptonian and human roots. Though old Big Blue himself has skulked off the Fortress of Solitude to wallow in self-pity, partly due to the events of BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, entirely encasing himself in ice, leaving Diana to take on the parenting duties alone! Consequently she's struggling with rebellious teen Lara, who definitely sees herself as old-school Kryptonian and not remotely compassionate towards humanity. Carrie Kelly, meanwhile, Robin from the previous two Dark Knight works you may recall, seems to have replaced the late Bruce Wayne, finally killed in action three years previously, as Batman. He's not dead, obviously.
"This mean you're not dead anymore, Boss?"
'This' being the thousand Kandorians, let loose entirely due to the good intentions of Dr. Ray Palmer aka The Atom and rather less so of Lara, who led by the murderous Quar have decided to take over the Earth and if mankind doesn't start worshipping them and doing exactly what Quar wants, be wiped off the face of the globe. If only Bruce Wayne wasn't dead, if only someone could persuade Clark out of his self-imposed isolation, if only Diana wasn't too busy looking after the baby to help... The rest of the Justice League might be useful too, I reckon... If only someone could do some additional tie-in mini-comics about them...
This is definitely a more straightforward work than either of its two predecessors. It does however have some distinct on-point things to say about the current state of the world we live in. And the current orange President makes a typically excruciating appearance. For the most part, it says them very eloquently, often rather amusingly and with some considerable degree of wit, and rather even-handedly. There are only two things I wish had been done differently. I wish Quar had had a less Arabic sounding name. And that his 'wives' weren't wearing garb akin to that you would see a Saudi prince dressed in. Those two points just made me slightly uncomfortable.
Miller obviously wishes to very overtly draw the analogy with ISIS and their insane desire for hegemony at all costs. He clearly does, and actually, I suppose that is fine, but it just felt slightly unnecessary for those two strident embellishments to make it so obvious. If it weren't for HOLY TERROR, and also some of his previous statements, they might not have bothered me at all, but because of that, I was probably subconsciously looking for something of that ilk, which I consequently found. I am aware he still feels very strongly about the events of 9/11 and he clearly still wants to express that in his comics, so perhaps it wasn't surprising.
Where any such imbalance, real or not, is entirely redressed, at least in comics terms, is in that which was entirely lacking in HOLY TERROR, for this work has humanity and heart by the bucket load. There are some big emotional swings and personal journeys for various characters in this work, not least one stinging betrayal and dramatic redemption in particular, but this book also feels like Frank Miller's redemption, partial or whole depending on your viewpoint, to me, again, in comics terms. He can still clearly write good comics, even with the unquantifiable assistance of Brian Azarello, which for all I know was something DC insisted upon for editorial control reasons. Anyway, as a team they certainly worked very well together.
This delightfully chunky softocover collects all nine issues of the main Master Race series, plus the additional very enjoyable mini-comics that came stapled into the middle of the issues, featuring all the various major old school Justice League members in a full set of cameos, with art from Eduardo Risso and John Romita Jr. How's that for two fill-in artists?! There are also a few sketch pages and pin ups chucked in for good measure. Shame they didn't include the 57-page DARK KNIGHT RETURNS prequel one-shot THE LAST CRUSADE, also co-written with Azarello, with its delightfully twisted, exquisitely painful ending, that came out in the middle of this run of issues. Still, at £22-99 for all that material, which Marvel would no doubt have been trying to charge at least another fifteen quid for, it's very good value indeed.
Will this go down as a classic? I'm not sure, but it's certainly an extremely good sequel well worth the price of admission.